2021 | Bethesda Beat

Council amends zoning bill allowing placement of 5G technology

Final vote on zoning amendment expected next week

share this

County Council members on Tuesday made more changes to a proposal that would help pave the way for 5G service to expand in Montgomery County.

The zoning text amendment sets limits on where and how 5G small cell antennas and equipment can be placed in residential areas countywide. 

The smaller equipment used for 5G networks can be placed closer together. That creates a more robust, faster network, versus 4G towers, which often stretch hundreds of feet into the air and are more spaced out.

The small cell antennas for 5G can also be placed on existing utility poles or similar structures. Overall, 5G provides greater speeds and data transfer than 4G technology.

Council Member Hans Riemer has been working on the amendment for roughly five years. He has said at recent meetings Montgomery County is falling behind other local jurisdictions like Washington, D.C., and some in northern Virginia that have passed laws allowing 5G equipment.

During Tuesday’s meeting, council members unanimously approved multiple changes to the overall zoning text amendment:

  • Council Member Craig Rice’s proposal to set the minimum height for streetlight pole replacements for 5G technology at 20 feet
  • Rice’s proposed limits on pole replacement heights in Commercial/Residential, Industrial, and Employment zones. The pole must be at least as tall as the one it’s replacing or as the tallest one within 50 feet, whichever is taller
  • Council Member Andrew Friedson’s proposal that replacement poles meet a “preferential placement” standard: close to intersections, close to property lines between dwellings and “along the non-front-facing side of residential properties, or abutting properties used for a non-residential purpose.”

The council rejected another proposal by Council President Tom Hucker. It would have created a “tiered approach” to setbacks for the placement of 5G antennas, based on the type of street they are on. 

Wider roads that have higher speed limits would still have a setback requirement of 30 feet, but those with speed limits of less than 50 mph would have greater setback requirements. That does not include the applicant petitioning through a waiver process to get an exemption, which would trigger a potential public hearing in front of the county’s hearing examiner in the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings.

Only Hucker and Council Member Sidney Katz voted to approve that amendment. Katz said Tuesday that he would oppose the entire zoning text amendment to help 5G service expand.

A final vote on the zoning text amendment is scheduled for next Tuesday.

The 5G proposal has been contentious for the County Council for years. Riemer and other supporters say it’s needed to set guidelines so wireless technology can be expanded to help bridge the “digital divide” countywide, an issue further illuminated by the coronavirus pandemic.

But many community members and Elrich have accused the council of rushing the zoning text amendment through the legislative process.

Elrich has sent two memos to the council during meetings in recent weeks, actions that council members have expressed displeasure with. 

In one memo, Elrich called for a task force to further examine the issue. The council opposed that idea, along with a similar proposal from Council Member Evan Glass.

Some residents have spoken out against the zoning text amendment, citing the potential proliferation of poles throughout their communities and the health impacts.

They also have expressed concerns about health risks, often citing a 2018 study from the National Toxicology Program headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The study showed that extremely high doses of radio frequency radiation — the transfer of energy of radio waves — were linked to cancerous heart tumors in male rats.

But The National Cancer Institute says radio waves are non-ionizing, meaning they don’t have the energy to break apart DNA and cause cancer. The World Health Organization has said radio frequency radiation is “possibly carcinogenic,” but that designation also applies to talcum powder and ginkgo extract.

On Tuesday, the Coalition to Protect Neighborhoods, a consortium of county groups against the amendment, said at a news conference that the zoning text amendment is being rushed through.

Nicole Williams, one of its members, said council members might think they are closing the “digital divide” with the proposal, but there are no guarantees for affordable monthly service in it. She also said the council doesn’t have a proposal for providing residents with affordable devices for the Internet.

“If the council is genuine in their efforts in how to bridge the digital divide, then they have to consider all the factors that led to that digital divide,” Williams said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com